Breathing together – How to stop comparing ourselves

What questions do you ask when you meet someone for the first time?

Personally, I purposefully avoid asking them about their work. More often than not this information comes out spontaneously and naturally. In the meantime, I savor the ability to listen unknowingly, as I enter into a space of neutrality and curiosity.  

Most of the time when we ask someone about their work, we indirectly question their social status. Unbeknownst to us our brains are equipped with a kind of application that continuously assesses social rank. This App has an adaptive function. In Social Rank Theory, evolutionary psychologists propose that this kind of App has developed to allow individuals to position themselves within a group. Being at the top of the social ladder has multiple benefits in terms of access to wealth, care, and education, which in turn prolongs lifespan and promotes the transmission of genes. 

But when we enter into relationship with others, this “social rank” App works like a kind of see-saw. Do you remember see-saws when you were a kid? It was a lot more fun to fly up high than to fall down heavily. When we are placed (or place ourselves) in a high-ranking social position we inevitably witness others in a lower position. Initially, we may feel proud of ourselves, but then we may also feel embarrassed or guilty and ask ourselves: “Who do I think I am”? In a sense, being in a lower-ranking social position can then seem to be a more comfortable place to be. However, this position is also complicated. We might feel protected from rivalries or jealousy, but also experience feelings of worthlessness that can surprise us as if someone was whispering in our ear: “You’re not enough! ” (Brené Brown).

Paul Gilbert’s research shows that this social rank mentality is linked to the mental suffering of depression and anxietyBerkeley researchers have also linked inflated or deflated feelings of self-worth to such afflictions as bipolar disorder and narcissistic personality disorder. This relational balancing act (external but also internalized) is often difficult to stabilize and complicates our sense of connection to others.

What if we decided to get off this see-saw? How would we go about doing just that?

A good place to start could be to simply remember that we are all human beings and explore what that means. We all have experienced pain, doubt and hope. We share our deepest ancestral and universal fears. We are afraid of dying, of being crazy and of being rejected. We hope, consciously or not, to be seen and loved. We fear abandonment but seek warmth and shelter to rest. Most simply we all breathe.

Take a moment to feel your breath and realize that beyond all the differences, we all breathe.

Getting off the see-saw and breathing together is allowing the emergence of a sense of shared humanity. It is one of the central elements of compassion (the motivation to relieve suffering). One can only consider the suffering of another if the value of that person can be seen. For example, not so long ago we used to consider that children were less important than adults. At that time, we tended to put their needs and their distress in the background. To consider that children and infants are equal in value has led to a better understanding of their needs and difficulties and resulted in concrete improvements in their living conditions.  We are increasingly aware of their distress, especially when they are harassed and bullied.

I regret today that as a child I was not aware that this social rank App led me to turn my gaze towards “popular” children while I considered others less attractive. I have certainly missed out on wonderful relationships and friendships. Today I teach children who are bullied that such abuse is the result of a particular group identity mechanism. Just like a person, a group needs to create and develop an identity. Unfortunately, this identity is often built in opposition to others who are excluded. Anyone excluded from a group is often left out because of a certain characteristic.  This could be something as insignificant as them having a yellow scarf which could lead the group to create an identity as a red scarf wearers.  In this way they position themselves at the top in the see-saw, promoting the belief that “red scarf wearers are better.” 

The reflex of a devalued individual in such a situation is often to want to prove the value of his or her scarf, however hopeless this strategy might be. Instead, I encourage such children to work at simply unplugging their App; to mute it or stop looking at its notifications. After doing so they hopefully will be able to approach other children who have also been excluded by the group.

And it works! The last young girl who applied this strategy came back to me with two new friends. She said to me: “you know, Isabelle, finally, they’re not bad! My new friends are great!” She had previously ignored and discredited them because, like her, they were left out. By unplugging her App, she was able to approach them and realize how great they really were. This technique, if promoted, could certainly help alleviate a lot of suffering.

And it is not only children who can benefit from it!  What about you? Who would you go to if you unplugged your App?

Looking inwards, we can try to be sensitive to our own value driven self-worth. Through self-compassion, we can allow our own suffering and joy to express itself fully.  We can reconnect with a form of pride that is linked to what we have accomplished in terms of what we value and learn how to treasure ourselves the way we are instead of fighting to feel superior. We then can develop a feeling of self-worth based on a non-judgmental vision of ourselves; a vision filled with curiosity that is open to growth and promotes a sense of learning and creativity. Essentially this is a vision of ourselves as human beings living fully as we connect to a sense of common experience breathing at our own pace and in harmony with others.  

Isabelle Leboeuf is a psychologist and psychotherapist in France. In her practice she integrates hypnotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy and compassion-focused therapy.

Leanne Rondeau is a psychologist who works in a college counselling service and in private practice. She is affiliated with La Clinique de Psychologie Celia Lillo in the Plateau area of Montreal. She offers workshops in English and in French in Compassionate Mind Training.

Compassion, a New Powerful Energy

Compassion is a concept that may seem, at first glance, rather dusty. Indeed, it is very ancient and was in fact created 2500 years ago, yet it is still a value that is at the centre of many human movements. In today’s western cultures, we find the word compassion can be associated with a sense of sacrifice and even weakness. However, far from being weak, compassion has now risen to attention with a special strength. 

Compassion is a sensitivity to suffering in self (self-compassion) and others with a commitment to try to alleviate and prevent it (Gilbert, 2014). It is therefore neither a sacrificial act nor a weakness but a force, a source of courage, a motivation that allows us to free ourselves and others from suffering with respect and benevolence.

Why do we need compassion?

It seems obvious from the definition that compassion would be at the heart of caring and our care systems. Yet, our efficiency-based healthcare systems, evaluated by costs, as opposed to valuing care, have systematically moved compassion to one side. We now have, what might look like, a “cold” model of care subsumed within an industrial process. Even if the efficiencies are real, a “side effect” is the dehumanization of care. This lack of understanding and lack of prioritisation of compassion seems to be prevalent in most western human institutions. To introduce compassion into our organisations would require a recognition of the inner human force as a resource to free suffering, beyond generating products, goods or energy. 

In spite of extraordinary advances in global health and wealth, human suffering does not diminish. New diseases develop, psychological disorders become more prevalent and suffering and dissatisfaction at work lead to waves of suicide, in both private firms and state institutions.

The environment is caught up in this degradation of life; climate issues are real.

Thankfully we are now witnessing a new appetite, a new desire, a will to think differently. We are seeing a move to develop an emotional and rational intelligence that embraces not just the individual as an isolated unit, but the self as an interconnection of social networks. There is now a rethinking of what is good for one will benefit others. Cooperation and mutual assistance are being harnessed to create a synergist potential for a more authentic, deeper force for change.

Life has evolved in the course of history by the successive development of complexity. Single celled organisms were the first units of life that collaborated to create more complex organisms. In doing so, they broadened their capacity to adapt to new environments and to new challenges. 

These beings learned to share their resources, to co-create houses, villages and states. Today, we too must continue this drive to cooperate, with a new common objective: to relieve suffering, to create a new dynamic and to develop a powerful, ecological energy, a social energy: Compassion.

Isabelle leboeuf & Kisane Prutton

Isabelle Leboeuf is a psychologist and psychotherapist. In her practice she integrates hypnotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy and compassion-focused therapy.

Kisane Prutton is a Chartered Psychologist (Occupational; registered with the HCPC), Chartered Scientist, accredited mediator and qualified coach. 

Prutton Partnership


Yesterday was a special day

It started like a “normal” lockdown day. I did the school with the kids in the morning, prepared lunch and after cleaning the table, I prepared for a guided meditation on Zoom with some colleagues and friends. The meditation was heartfeltly guided by Dennis Tirch

I had a sense of sadness at the beginning of the group that was not usual. But little by little, my heart opened to my soul
After someone came in apologizing for being late, we all knew there was something not normal happening. But we all tried to welcome this person with acceptation and Dennis Tirch helped us all settle after the interruption and we tried to make room for this late arrival

That’s when the video of mass shooting started, probably a realistic video game. 

I remember hearing someone saying, “it’s a video game”, but my mind was taken by the images. I felt devastated

After an interruption, we were “lucky enough” to get trash pornography… 

Not a big deal? I was myself surprised by how much distress and suffering emerged from that experience

I quickly realized that I was feeling an echo of other traumatic events

This zoom bombing is the perfect metaphor of using people’s vulnerability to hurt them

The natural reaction we all had after it happened was to question how we could protect ourselves from this? 

I remember someone telling me that I am candid, that my openness was rare and refreshing. I’m an open-hearted person and some people expect it to be naïve, the result of an easy life with no betrayal or no wound

But many times, in my life, people have taken advantage of my open heart to use or abuse me. Just like this zoom-bombing, they have heart-bombed me and many others

I used two weapons in return to kill the darkness of their heart, I’ve used my sadness to grieve and allow the love to return after the swell had gone

And I’ve planted a seed of love in their heart 

Some have changed, some are gone but my heart isn’t closed to anyone of them. No matter how much hurt they have left

Thank you to this heart-bomber to allow this suffering to be expressed and shared 

Thank you also to remind me that the opening of the heart is really a choice of courage and compassion

I’m sorry I didn’t get the chance to plant a seed of love in his heart but it’s all the hurt I wish him 

Sexual Compassion

“Sexual Compassion” was edited by psychreg. You can read it here.

How do you feel about giving yourself sexual pleasure? How about talking about it publicly? Do you feel perfectly comfortable tackling the subject?

In high school, I raised this subject with two friends and their reaction was outrage. I dared to talk about a taboo subject! To be honest, I would have forgotten about it if they hadn’t reminded me of it a few years later after watching a few episodes of  Sex and the City

They had discussed together and thanked me. Having had the opportunity to simply talk about giving themselves sexual pleasure had made them feel less lonely and released from a feeling of shame.

The association between shame and sexuality is common. It can of course be linked to sexual assaults but can also include sexual orientation, type of sexual practices, sexual body, fantasies, transgressed consent (suffered or acted), also fertility, infertility, termination of pregnancy, contraception – everything related to sex can be the source of a feeling of inadequacy, of being impossible to love or even a feeling of self-hatred

Shame is an emotion that teaches us social norms and prevents us from being perceived as different, unsuitable. But the burning of shame leaves us with the feeling that our behaviours if they are deviant make us bad. In fact, it has been shown in one study that it pushes us to secrecy and favours ruminations.

Sexual shame is probably the most widely shared experience of shame among human beings. The good news is that it is possible to reinvent a secure interindividual space, in which to be, to feel, to create and to take pleasure; a space of sexual compassion.

Because ultimately sex is nothing more than a pair of socks. It’s really a crappy image, but all the better, let’s go straight ahead by adding a yellow colour and a cartoon logo. Yellow socks may be appealing to some, but will never please everyone. And it’s fine like that! Let’s keep the joy and the pleasure of putting on the socks that excite us!

To approach our sexuality with self-compassion is to do it with the kindness of a good friend. It is being present to the pain, without judgement, trying to understand our history or that of our partner. It is also to keep in mind that we are not alone in the face of this feeling. 

Social networks are today a great tool for witnessing sexual suffering. Many people find the courage to expose themselves by refusing to be judged and thus allow everyone to realise that they are not alone in feeling embarrassed or ashamed.

To free oneself from shame is also to face our own gaze, our own criticism which fiercely tries to protect us from the judgement of others. We are sometimes tempted to flee or hide ourselves; to conceal a belly, an imperfection. But to avoid seeing oneself, or to show oneself, is also to avoid loving oneself, or feeling loved. Finding the courage to smile in the mirror or to the gaze of others is to risk reconciling with yourself.

Sexual self-compassion is welcoming our own suffering related to sexuality. Put it in perspective of our history: Why is this withdrawing hand so violently painful? I very often hear in my psychotherapy practice the pain of rejection that is replayed in sexuality. If the other doesn’t desire me, is it still possible to be loved?

I often explain that there are three sexualities in one. The sexuality of the body, that of the heart, and that of the spirit. You may want (the heart) chocolate cake but not be hungry (the body) and tell yourself that it is bad for your health (the mind). Likewise, you can love sex but be tired or worried that there will be negative consequences. All combinations are possible!

Listening to and differentiating our three sexual experiences and those of the other can allow us to better understand ourselves and better accept a certain confusion or ambivalence. Our mind is complex, delivered without instructions just like the beings sharing our sexuality.

Paul Gilbert defines compassion as a sensitivity to suffering and a motivation to relieve our suffering (self-compassion) or that of others. How is it possible to deal with the shame of having transgressed the consent of the other? 

Going from shame to guilt and from guilt to responsibility. I have sometimes received this type of testimony with great emotion, as much by the sign of confidence that was offered to me as by the courage to face the experience of shame. Shame tells us that we are the problem. To go to guilt is to realise that we are more complex than our actions and to face the problem and its consequences. 

Getting out of a form of fusion with our actions, leads us to see that our behaviour is problematic, but also that we are able to have different behaviours. By putting this problem in the future rather than in the past and moving from the observation of deconstruction to planning a reconstruction action; we really start to take responsibility. 

It is not a question of denying but of confronting the reality with courage and finding the appropriate answers. What if, true sexual liberation was the liberation of a speech that testifies courageously and unleashes the energy of desire?

From fear to love, how to conquer phobia

From fear to love was edited by Psychreg. You can read it here.

What are you afraid of? Allow your thoughts to bring out something that could activate this emotion. How do you feel in your body when you’re afraid? How is your breathing? Are you tense? Are your shoulders perfectly relaxed?

If you have an intense urge to avoid this thought and you feel a strong fear that seems irrational, you may have a phobia.

Bravo for your courage! You just exposed yourself. That is to say, you have just mentally moved toward your fear rather than running away from it.

Cognitive behavioural therapy has shown that exposing ourselves to our fears is effective in freeing us. It’s counterintuitive but it’s a bit like if by going toward our fears, we could recreate a sense of security. We then learn something new.

Psychologists have long believed that it is through habituation (being present to the object of our fears) that fear disappears. Eric Morris, a researcher and expert in exposure therapy, points out that there are only a few studies that go in this direction. 

He specifies the importance of making new associations which will inhibit the old ones (the inhibitory learning model) and of approaching what scares us with psychological flexibility (that is to say with an openness to new experiences, uncertainty or with an open attention)

My patients have made me discover over the years of psychotherapy that the easiest way to access these two dimensions is joy.

Let’s take a concrete example. Suppose you have a crab phobia. Just seeing a photo of a crab makes you want to run away. If you want to break free from it, you’re going to have to go out and meet crabs. But how do you find the courage when you’ve been avoiding your seaside vacation for years?

Sharing attention with someone who isn’t afraid of crabs is a first step. We are often less afraid when we are with someone we trust. Why? Because sharing of attention or presence activates social joy that will help us regulate our negative emotions. 

Neuroscientist Richard Davidson in particular have long shown that positive emotions regulate negative emotions. With this trusted person who is not afraid of crabs, maybe even loves them, you can gradually look at pictures of crabs.

By discovering another vision of crabs, through the eyes of the another, you will learn new things. Gradually the crabs will associate with positive emotions. Van Kleef, a researcher working on the interpersonal dynamics of emotions, has shown that the emotional reactions that we observe in others allow us to create a new emotional conditioning. 

Watching someone find crabs ‘cool’ will help your brain associate crabs with a positive emotion that will counteract your fear. For example, you could watch videos of people handling crabs or warmly interacting with these adorable little animals, learning about their function in the ecosystem, or why some people love them.

Your brain will thus gradually make a new learning. You will more and more easily watch the crabs. You may even discover that you are starting to love crabs and why not plan a vacation by the sea? 

Isabelle Leboeuf is a psychologist and psychotherapist. In her practice she integrates hypnotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy and compassion-focused therapy.

Cultural Compassion

“Cultural Compassion” was published on Psychreg; clic here to read it.

Let me tell you how I discovered the concept of ‘cultural compassion’ – While walking through Paris, during strikes, with Ben Harper (or let’s say, a young man who looks a lot like him, I don’t have his permission to share his name).

You may have noticed that culture is often thought of as an accumulation of knowledge. We sometimes forget that it is actually a sharing of experiences, thoughts and emotions. It is the emergence of common knowledge, a mental resonance that creates a music score.

Do you think that culture as I have just defined it, can be healing? Could it free us from our suffering, and therefore be a form of compassion?

I move away from a small Parisian sidewalk, under a light drizzle, the yellow lights of the lampposts are reflecting on the puddles, when this idea appears to my mind: ‘cultural compassion’.

This story that I’m going to tell you illustrates the creation, the emergence of a concept as something shared, a common creation. We often think that concepts emerge in isolation, that they belong to us personally, in other words that we have a good idea. But conceptual history has shown that one concept has appeared at the same time in different places on the planet at a time where communication did not exist as it does today while the idea couldn’t have yet been shared. 

One way to interpret this phenomenon is to say that the concepts emerge from a convergence of historical, cultural or biological factors – From the access to knowledge more than from the individual who embodies this idea. It is the alchemy of the moment and the interactions between an individual and his environment that makes it emerge, that makes thoughts emerge in general.

So here’s my story, I had the chance to attend the conference of Matthieu Villatte, brilliant researcher studying psychology and ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). He is more specifically looking at the Relational Frame Theory, which is a model linked to a behavioural science of language. Matthieu presented through a monistic materialist approach of spirituality, a model allowing transcendent integration of different models of therapy.

To translate, it means that he tries to explain the world from the world itself and is relying on scientific knowledge of language behaviour to understand spirituality (the human behaviour of giving meaning to what seems beyond our ability to rationalise like personal growth, sacred meaning or one’s won ‘inner dimension’). 

Materialist philosophy is opposed to an understanding of the world by God or something that would exist beyond the world, but it is in the approach of Matthieu Villatte, to better understand the development of mental constructions of what is beyond our scientific knowledge. Instead of invalidating these constructs, this perspective makes it possible to better understand them and to overcome the dogmatic cleavages linked to the institutions which hierarchise their beliefs sometimes leading to wars or to extremism putting ideas before the reality of the suffering of beings. Or more simply, between different therapeutic fields, the ‘Parish’ quarrels.

In short, fascinated by his presentation and by the personal interest I see in it, my study of the links between compassion and love being in the midst of conceptual oppositions, I went to chat with Matthieu Villatte and Ben Harper by the end of the congress. As the discussion was slow to finish, I proposed to ‘Ben’ to walk a long way and let Matthieu find his friends (Matthieu is brilliant but he also has the patience of an angel).

In short, ‘Ben’ told to me about his experience of therapy, I was hypnotised by his lucidity and by his experience of therapy. It is quite rare for us, psychologists, to hear without filter how a patient experienced his therapy.

I reformulated what I understood using the metaphor of a tree. When we are threatened, our negative emotions tighten us, tense us up to protect us, like the trunk of the tree which hardens not to be devoured. Our positive emotions if we listen to them, guide us, like the branch of the tree which feels the direction in which it must push to go towards the sun. “Ben” replied that it was very cultural, that this image resonated with his African culture.

We looked at each other, and the idea appeared: ‘cultural compassion’. And we develop it together. Matthieu began his presentation by talking about the different ways of perceiving men and women across cultures. I am often embarrassed that people who fight stigma list negative cognitive biases towards a subgroup. It is of course necessary to be aware of our biases, but it is even more important to go beyond.

But how? Well, through cultural compassion, that is, through the creation of shared experiences that will take us beyond our biases. Without erasing our differences, we can collect our points of shared humanity.

Social Joy

Do you know the story of this person who was chronically ill until the day he or she fell in love? And that of new grandparents who found meaning in life when their youngest reaches out to them for the first time? Perhaps you have felt a special sense of well-being the day you bought an animal?

All these examples illustrate the underused power of social joy. The joy of a shared attention or presence (Leboeuf, 2017). Human beings have a thirst to exist in the eyes of others, to be seen or to share a direction. It’s as important as food needs. This need has been well studied in the Attachment Theory. Social joy is the emotion that emerges when this basic need is satisfied. It indicates a space of growth or expansion of oneself in the relationship. It not only allows the emergence of a feeling of well-being and relaxation, but also a better regulation of our negative emotions. You have surely noticed that spontaneously a child who is afraid, snuggles in the arms of a parent. Feeling the presence of others calms us down and we can, as we evolve into adulthood, use this strategy to better deal with stressful or scary situations.

But our culture disconnects us more and more from those around us. We are encouraged toward autonomy and interdependence is seen as a weakness; while there is a form of joy and perhaps even happiness to grow within harmonious relationships.

A simple strategy to strengthen the social joy in our lives is to pay attention to others by returning to the present moment. Take time for a break with colleagues or at home. Close the « to do » lists and look at the people around us.

When we are present to the beings around us, a silent process occurs, synchronization. Our brain will not only regulate our heart, respiratory and cerebral rhythms but also the rhythms of those around us. A bit like an invisible dance. Our body will vibrate to the pace of our loved ones and this especially if we show empathy.

To explore this process, as part of my doctorate I developed a simple exercise: « the smile exercise ». Visualizing a caring person who smiles at us increases our positive emotions but also reduces our negative emotions. The image in introduction of the paper is what participants felt when they did this exercise.

The joy of being together, around a table or a firework, walking together or laughing; allows us to recreate a “secure”, non-judgmental space from which we can explore while feeling supported.

It is this space that opens the door to play, to appeased learning, or exploration. But it is also a space that will be beneficial to therapy and will allow to welcome, validate, and integrate the suffering (a space of compassion). 

It’s a treasure from which we so often seem to have lost the key. TO find it, we travel very far, cross mountains and torrents and finally discover, at the foot of a tree that it never left us.

And you? What are your sources of social joy?

Lovers’ hearts beat in sync

When modern-day crooner Trey Songz sings, “Cause girl, my heart beats for you,” in his romantic ballad, “Flatline,” his lyrics could be telling a tale that’s as much physiological as it is emotional, according to a new study that found lovers’ hearts indeed beat for each other, or at least at the same rate.

When lovers touch, their breathing, heartbeat syncs, pain wanes, study shows

When an empathetic partner holds a lover’s hand, their heart rates and breathing rates sync and her pain subsides, new research shows. Authors say such ‘interpersonal synchronization’ could play a role in the analgesic impacts of touch.

Eye contact with your baby helps synchronize your brainwaves

Making eye contact with an infant makes adults’ and babies’ brainwaves ‘get in sync’ with each other — which is likely to support communication and learning.

Isabelle Leboeuf, Psychologist, Psychotherapist

In my therapy practice I integrate Hypnotherapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Compassion-Focused Therapy. As I continue to work toward my PhD in Psychology, I’m studying the links between Compassion and Positive Social Emotions from the point of view of experimental psychopathology and clinical applications.

I’m the happy mother of two kids and the aunt of three. I live in the northern part of France. Compassion and Love are the Values that guide me. 

The roots of compassion

Have you ever felt the joy of compassion (Ekman, 2016)?

This particular feeling when you help someone and see tears turn into a smile? Maybe something tiny like smiling at someone and seeing their face light up?

How did you experience it?

This moment that you have thought of is part of the emotional roots of your compassion.

I am a clinical psychologist and I learned to follow the “thread” of an emotion, to better understand it. (I explore roots, emotional anchors through memory processes; Bower, 1981). For example, if someone feels a strong emotion that seems incomprehensible, I ask at what other time in life they may have felt this emotion. And very often, a “root” memory emerges.

Our emotions not only have the function of organizing our bodily reactions, our behaviors and our thoughts; they also organize our memory and therefore our remembrances.

To be sensitive to suffering and to free them, we need a motivation: Compassion (Gilbert 2014). Compassion organizes our emotions. The situations we encounter are emotionally impregnated. The roots of our suffering will therefore guide our motivation to move towards or to avoid our suffering.

Let’s take an example, a farmer in the middle ages decides to go explore a forest. This decision and the behaviors that follow are guided by motivation. According to the story of this peasant and the experiences that he has been able to live in this forest, he learned to associate the forest with different things. If he harvested mushrooms or fruits in the forest, his motivation to return may be food. Maybe he went there to meet a Druid who healed him, or maybe he made a love encounter with, according to, motivations of compassion or romantic love. If in his history, the forest was associated only with dangerous situations, he could learn to be afraid and a motivation of survival will push him to avoid going there.

Perhaps the idea of ​​meeting your suffering also triggers one of these motivations.

How do you feel about exploring your suffering?

To enter therapy is to enter into relationship with our suffering. According to our history and the roots of our suffering, we will have a motivation of compassion or want to flee.

It’s the same for the therapist. I am often told, “What hard work you do! To hear suffering all day must be difficult! ” And in fact, I am often moved, touched sometimes shaken by the suffering of people who honor me with their confidence. I sometimes cry after a session or at the end of a day. Two things allow me to live this suffering well. The first is to fully welcome it without possessing it. I create in me a warm, nonjudgmental space that allows it to exist. And I take the time to reconnect with the joy of seeing someone get better, I take the time to feel the joy of compassion.

Two experiences are necessary for a compassionate motivation to push us towards suffering. The experience of suffering and that of the joy of compassion.

A Catholic tale recounts that in the Middle Ages, a lord was burned for abominable acts for which he expressed no remorse. On the wood, he was ordered to ask God for forgiveness. He refused. But as the flames began to sore his flesh; he understood the suffering of his victims, fell into tears and implored forgiveness. The tale says that his sudden compassion opened the doors to heaven.

Without the experience of suffering it is difficult; sometimes impossible to have compassion. Which makes we wonder at the fact that children may be taught not to feel their emotions. “Don’t be sad”.

An expression says that healers do not come down from the light but come out of darkness. The experience of pain and suffering allows for an understanding, an empathy that is a basis for compassion.

But is it enough to have suffered to have compassion?

We also need the experienced the joy of compassion. To enlighten us, I asked some colleagues trained in Compassion Focused Therapy what the joy of compassion could evoke. Here are their answers:

Chris Fraser, a therapist in Dublin, U.S., told me a childhood memory. His mother was sad, and tears ran down her face. He was still very young but spontaneously he rubbed her back. He felt his sadness subside and thought to himself, “That’s what I want to do in life.”

Will Devlin, a clinical psychologist in the U.K. explained that sometimes “providing therapy feels wonderful and offers me the opportunity to witness the process of change, to admire the strength, courage and determination of people in difficult circumstances, and to share the joy that people experience when they find ways to make their lives better.  Other times, however, it feels very difficult and painful too: I can feel powerless and incompetent and hopeless.  Reflecting on all such experience is, to my mind, key to understanding the therapy process and helping clients make sense of their own minds.”  Will said that he feels deeply committed to facing suffering and doing what he can to prevent it or alleviate it. 

Bethan O’Riordan, Counsellor & Psychotherapist at Resilient Minds in Ireland explained that when her son was very unwell and had to go to a specialist children’s hospital. She felt “the joy of being his mother, even though at that time he was so unwell”.  To face this difficult situation, she would “sing, meditate and really connect to the pain of the situation”. She had “never felt stronger and more able to manage. I embodied my compassionate best, through the tears and the tiredness (didn’t leave his side for 4 days) and the joy that I was able to be there and be with him was immense”.

Leanne Rondeau who works in a mental health and wellness service in Montreal Canada, shared with us that the death of her mother to a brain tumor (15 years ago) was her most significant experience of suffering.  She explained: “We come into the world through our mothers, and when she was dying I felt that a part of me was dying with her.  However, the small glimmers of craziness, of fun and lightness, of twistedness, brought us closer and deeper.
If I would mention all the stupidities and fun we had during these dark months I am not sure it would be understood out of context, and it could actually seem quite offensive (Like Camus’ l’étranger having a cigarette in the morgue). However, in the end these elements ended up being what preserved our humanity, sanity and belief. So looking back my laughter flows as easily as my tears.”

The joy of compassion is a guide, a compass that allows us to approach suffering with confidence and serenity. It allows us to remain open, calm and creative in the face of critical and difficult situations. It gives us courage and helps us regulate our emotions.

The joy of compassion is a root that anchors the strength of our compassion.

A very big thank you to all the colleagues who supported this paper.

Bower GH (1981) Mood and memory. Am Psychol 36: 129–148.

Ekman, P. (2016). What scientists who study emotion agree about, Perspectives on psychological science. 11, 1, 31-34.

Gilbert P (2010) Compassionate mind: A new approach to life’s challenges. London: Constable-Robinson. Oaklands CA: New Harbinger.

Isabelle Leboeuf is a Psychologist, Psychotherapist

In her therapy practice she integrates Hypnotherapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Compassion-Focused Therapy. As she continues to work toward her PhD in Psychology, she is studying the links between Compassion and Positive Social Emotions from the point of view of experimental psychopathology and clinical applications.